If you live in an area prone to earthquakes, you may be used to the ground shaking without warning. But in recent years, technology has allowed governments and independent companies to create earthquake warning systems.
These systems, such as Google’s Android earthquake warning system, cannot predict an earthquake because the technology does not yet exist. But it can give people a seconds-long warning to take action to prepare.
On October 25, a magnitude 5.1 earthquake struck the San Francisco Bay Area. Twitter users thanked Google for the alert, saying he had received a notification of an impending earthquake only a few seconds before they could feel the ground shaking.
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Google Earthquake Detection is available worldwide, but is enhanced in California, Oregon, and Washington, where more seismometer systems can communicate with Google’s servers.
Google Earthquake Alert uses data from Android phones and phone accelerometers, which are small sensors that, when used together, can detect an earthquake just before it happens. Phone accelerometers are a way for Android phones to notify people of an earthquake in places where there are no seismometer systems.
These sensors send signals to Google’s earthquake detection server along with a rough estimate of the earthquake’s location, and Android users are then notified of earthquake tremors.
Technology is constantly evolving to help keep us safe, such as Google’s earthquake detection system and Apple’s crash detection system. iPhone users can also receive earthquake alerts — in some locations through iPhone settings or a third-party app. This week’s earthquake prompted a comparison between Android and iPhone alerts.
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David Kleidermacher, a member of the Google security team, hints that Google subscribes to the “power of aperture” while other companies do not. He mentioned that Apple didn’t notify the iPhone user in his office about the earthquake until after it happened.
Google says seismometer systems are expensive to build and operate, so the solution is to use Android phones as mini seismometers. But as Robert de Groot, a member of ShakeAlert’s operations team, told Wired, for the phones to work as earthquake detectors, people need to be near an earthquake.
As Google improves the technology, they hope to notify people of an earthquake with more seconds between notification and an active earthquake. The technology is still new and underdeveloped, so it may be a while before people even have a minute to cover up.